Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Casual Sex Project

This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 18

An NYU professor, Zhana Vrangalova, has started a website that allows people to detail their experiences of casual sex.  This has grown out of her work in developmental psychology and a PhD about casual sexual encounters.  
The stories shared on thecasualsexproject.com are an interesting read - slightly titilating for sure but also oddly profound, especially if you read a good handful of them together. The writers range in age from 19 -70 and have multifarious sexual orientations, and the majority of reported hook-ups are postitive experiences.  Unsurprisingly, it appears that desire is experienced in a very similar way by most humans, and that genuine physical desire is the single most important thing in determining if a one-night stand is going to be perceived positively by the people involved in it. 
I think there's something in that for everyone...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Inequality of access and representation in tech

This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 18
So - it comes as no surprise to me to see that, particularly in the developing world, there is significant gendered inequality of access to the internet, or the expertise to locate information when it is available:
Twitter has recently published statistics on its own diversity in the interests of transparency and because it believes the make-up of its staff should reflect the users the company serves.  It some as no surprise there either that women make up only 10% of the tech workers in the company, while having much higher representation elsewhere.
The question on my mind right now is - how did these two situations come to be?  I recognise that the answer is a) complex and b) that despite the common issue of gender, inequality of access is not the same as inequality of representation.  Poverty and historical inequalities in rural environments have a lot to do with the former, for example.
While I passionately believe that vulnerable non-Western communities must address inequality of access in order to thrive, the fact that women in the West are often outside of tech continues to intrigue me. We've had good employment and educational opportunities since before the tech boom, but somehow tech has still become a 'gendered' career path.  Which leaves woman as non-participants in decisions which affect us deeply, while missing out on some truly astounding salaries, work flexibility and lots of other perks.  Is it identity politics?  Gendered educational expectations?  Or something else?    


Bus stop, Great North Road, Auckland

This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 17

I saw this poster on a bus stop while walking to my sister's.  Look closely for the word 'Diabetes'. Who is the marker-pen-carrying wit roaming Grey Lynn, protesting advertising, the industrial food complex and unfortunate health statistics?  Whoever it is made me laugh out loud on the street like a hyena.  I prefer funny with my subversion.  Ole!

At Berkeley

The Clocktower at University of California Berkeley,  June 2014

This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 16
Veteran observational filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley is a four-hour meditation on the value of publicly-funded tertiary education, as seen through the lens of life at the University of California Berkeley.  I saw this at Rialto Cinema as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland.
This film is a very interesting piece of work for so many reasons.  It's the first film I've seen by Wiseman which eschews 16 mm in favour of high definition video, it's ridiculously long and it clearly takes the side of those in charge which previous films about institituons (for example High School and Titticut Follies) clearly do not.  This is of course because the film's beautifully articulated position that public education in America is vital and in danger aligns it closely with the beliefs of Berkeley's administration.  
It's an amazing film - the length is justified as it allows the audience to experience life at Berkeley - classes, debates, impassioned youth, cooler older heads, the campus, the workers, the administration, all adding another dimension to our understanding - but its gruelling to watch too.  Weak bladders are surely put to the test.
For a detailed and thoughtful review which largely echoes my own thoughts, Roger Ebert's website is the business.  And if you get a chance to see At Berkeley at the cinema take it.  I can't imagine any universe in which it would get a general release.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pulp: a film about life, death and supermarkets

Filmmaker Florian Habicht before a screening of his documentary 
Pulp: A Film about life, death and supermarkets, Civic Theatre, Auckland, July 25
This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 15
Florian Habicht's Pulp: a film about life, death and supermarkets is pretty much a work of genius.  I don't always respond this way to Habicht's films so either I'm growing more sophisticated (unlikely) or something else is at work.  
A meditation on fame, aging, music, sex and, yes, death, the documentary is driven as much by the 'common people' of Pulp's home town Sheffield as it is by so-real-it-hurts footage of the band's last ever show - in Sheffield.  The film winds its narrative between songs Common People and Hardcore allowing the thematic concerns of both to surface in a way which is both sophisticated and satisfying.  
Female singing groups, a female dance troup, a musician, three random little old ladies, a newspaper seller, two kids and a couple of butchers all share their thoughts on Pulp, their home town and life, in the candid and charming way audiences have come to expect of characters in Habicht's films.  
The fans are something else - the woman from Georgia, USA, the guy from Germany (interviewed in German because Habicht is that rare breed - a truly bilingual New Zealander), two Australian twins and an English girl who leads a round of Underwear while waiting with other hardcore fans to get entrance to the concert hall.  Their zealous love of the band serves as a perfect, understated reminder that Pulp are FAMOUS, even now, and this leads to a contemplation of what that means for the band members, most of whom (frontman Jarvis Cocker excepted perhaps) seem to aspire to be as ordinary as possible.  Indeed, an early sequence has drummer, Nick Banks, explaining that Pulp sponsored his daughter's soccer team, so now his daughter gets to be embarrassed that her dad's 'crap band' is all over their tops.  Oh the self-deprecation!   Later on guitarist Mark Webbey recounts a grim time in the 90s when he hated what he was doing passionately, his desire for a regular life thwarted by having to play in a band to thousands of screaming, happy fans.  
Cocker opens the film and later shares his thoughts about fame, performance and aging - all of which are things he is, of course, intimately connected with.  He says he doesn't get a buzz off aging but can live with it.  His young female fans couldn't care less about the fact that he's old enough to be their dad.  One of them waxes lyrical about his on-stage thrusting (of which there is plenty).  The film uses an interview with an academic to address the way Cocker writes about sex, which is to render the embarrassing awkward bits into song. Cocker says he got into a band so girls would make the first move.  Which leads the narrative, inevitably, to the song Hardcore.
For Cocker the Sheffield show is a chance to do their final concert properly.  In the film it's certainly rendered as a good gig - the venue sequences are the most powerful, interesting rendering of a concert I've ever seen, with multiple cameras in the thick of the experience, capturing the fans and the band from each other's perspective, up close and personal. The way the band, Cocker in particular, interacts with the audience is stunningly open.  A Canadian reviewer suggested that for Pulp "sing along with the common people" isn't just a lyric - it's a mission statement.'  All of which sets us up to feel the band's 'death' more profoundly.  The final frames before the credits roll are given to the fans standing outside the concert venue, contemplating a return to every day life.  For them, and for the band, the journey is over.  
If at times I wanted more of the band's history I'm willing to forgive the omission.  The film's concept was so humble and such a gentle and interesting mediation on the process of living. This is the last thing you would expect of a band documentary, except that this is a Florian Habicht film.  The collaboration with Pulp was obviously a meeting of minds.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Pigeon antics?

Pigeon wandering down Karangahape Road, Auckland City

This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 14

Ok - this is a small piece of sheer speculation, but has anyone else noticed that city pigeons in New Zealand are a) huge, and b) often possessed of a subtle patch of iridescent blue/green feathers around their heads and necks?  I wouldn't have even noticed except that I've recently been in the US and the pigeons are smaller and darker there.  This observation or hallucination has caused me to wonder if the city birds are interbreeding with the odd kereru.  The internet has been no help so I may remain doomed to wonder.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


This post is part of the 100 Days Project

Day 13

For a reason known only to himself, my partner has begun watching the TV series M*A*S*H from the beginning.  Although I'm trying to avoid TV (I'm a binge-watching freak who must be stopped) I've been in the same room as at few episodes recently and I'm impressed at how well it's aged.
Each episode manages to mix comedy and drama in a way that M*A*S*H made its own - the ludicrous nature of war, the psychological toll, the odd juxtaposition of educated, liberal doctors and the bureaucracy of the army.  The dialogue is pin sharp still, the stories fresh if no longer original, and if the cutting is a little clunky, the acting is as committed as the day it first hit celluloid.  The interaction of the main ensemble rings, if not true, then certainly familiar for anyone who's ever worked in a team.
There are things to criticise of course.  In its sexual politics it's completely of the 70s - all the woman are nurses and all the doctors are men, there's a revolving set of sexually available ladies, widespread infidelity and sexual harassment as a narrative staple.  The six-character ensemble, features a single female character (for there can, of course, be only one), her moniker is 'Hot-lips' and she's the main object of sexual attention for the rest of the cast.  
But - all of that said, there's a degree of complexity in Margaret Houlihan's characterisation which belies the very liberal positioning of the show.  She's a Major, out-ranked by only one other character, she's a careerist (with occasional regrets) and she's shown time and again to be extremely competent at her job.  This is the reason she garners more respect from the rest of the characters than her partner, Major Frank Burns, aka Ferret-face, who is known to be a bad surgeon.  
Margaret's value as constructed in the narrative comes from the approval rating she gets from the 'star' Captain Hawkeye Pierce.  I would read this as a Lacanian configuration in that her 'meaning' is determined by a man and we as the audience read with his assessment of her.  However I confess myself to be charmed by the way she is valued both for her professional competence and for her sexual attractiveness - she even gets to have a sexual relationship with a married man and still be seen as a goodygoody.  This comfortable duality would no doubt collapse completely under a more rigorous reading, but its complexity is a welcome relief from the oft-coined Madonnas/whore construction.  
On consideration, there are many worse narrative representations of woman I could have grown up with.  Although she unhelpfully emphasises the idea that there's only one spot for women at the top and she doesn't often lead the narrative, 40 years down the line Margaret Houlihan is looking pretty darn good, especially compared to a lot of the two-dimensional roles available to woman in contemporary media.  M*A*S*H is alright...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 12
The Wall Street Journal today published an article citing several studies which have found seven hours sleep per night is probably optimal for health and wellbeing.  This is one hour less than the previous recommendation of eight hours but still more than most Americans probably get most nights.  Can we assume the same statistic applies to New Zealanders? - probably, if I'm anything to go by.  Yawn.
Happily, when indulging, scientists have reassured us that we can rest easy in the knowledge that it's impossible to overdose.  We just wake up when we're done.  Amazingly physical truisms like this, taken for granted by my mother and all those who came before her, now require scientific verification. But since we have it, I'm going off for a seven hour nap.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Conservative Manifesto flaw

This post is part of the 100 Days Project
Day 11
I was at my sister's house the other day when, with a horrifed expression rising, she asked if I'd been targeted to receive Conservative Party messaging.   Her air of disgust had more reasonance after I read the leaflet she was referring to.  It wasn't so much that I disagreed with almost every piece of policy - it was more the way it revealed a profound ignorance of New Zealand's system of government and its constitution.
Case in point:
"The fact that in this day and age Maori are treated as 2nd class citizens and victims drives us nuts.  Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same old thing over and over, but expecting a different result.  Try something new.  We stand for equal rights and representation for all New Zealanders, plain and simple.  Nothing loony about that."
1) Maori occupy a specific place in New Zealand society but as their position as 'second-class citizens' and 'victims' derives directly from colonisation which obviously began well before the 1867 Native Schools Act and establishment of the Maori electorates which are being obliquely referred to above.  If Maori lost proportional representation and opened the door to language loss that year, they lost far more in the subsequent illegal annexation of land by the New Zealand government.  The government which couldn't constitutionally exist without the Treaty, signed in 1840 - well before 1867. 
3) Via the Waitangi Tribunal, the New Zealand government has repatriated and will repatriate about 1% of the resources taken from each hapu.  The process is indeed flawed, but stopping it before it reaches a natural conclusion is unfair to hapu who are still waiting for their compensation.  It will also make no material difference to the resources available to the rest of New Zealand.  And, given that the rest of the country is about 90% composed of land stolen from its original owners, frankly the suggestion to quit the process is just a bit morally repugnant.
5) Maori have been very under-represented in parliament since the establishment of the Maori electorates.  Indeed these were originally intended to limit Maori representation.  However every non-male, non-white group in society is under-represented in the parliamentry system and this is generally considered to be a problem.  Abolishing the Maori electorates is not going to suddenly produce true proportional representation - for any group.  And since Maori can't vote on both rolls, and since tau iwi and Maori can stand in any electorate, general or Maori, there's no procedural problem with the Maori electorates currently.
The policy referred to in this post is what political pundits call a 'dog-whistle'.  In other words it is supposed to mean little to 'ordinary New Zealanders', whoever they are, but act as a rallying call to hard right voters.
I'm not sure if it's craven cynicism or if Colin Craig actually believes what he's saying.  But either way, New Zealand's government is based on the Treaty, without which it could not constitutionally exist, and the Treaty enshrines the duality of governance in this country.  If you don't understand that then you shouldn't be in parliament.